Saturday, 19 January 2013

Pick the Mushrooms - Don't Drink the Water.

                                                                             Black Sea coast below Krymsk.

On the internal Russian flight with Ural Airways we are offered sweets and sick-bags before take-off. It's not a good sign. The plane is a rather old Boeing, because planes in Russia have a much longer shelf-life than in many other countries. However, my son assures me, there are positive aspects; the planes have been proved to work and their pilots have many years of experience in flying the same models.

It's a good flight. The Russian couple sitting beside me see that I'm writing in my notebook and assume I'm a famous author from England.
London, they know,
Kate Middleton, they know.
Manchester United the husband thinks I must know.
Manchester City? No?
Mobile phones with lots of photos save the day for their communication with me. I see their summer-house, their daughters, sons-in-law, grandson.
I see their fishing trips. The fish.....amazing! I am suitably impressed. I do this in England? No? No lady fishing? That is strange.
I see the mushrooms, baskets full of them. I go to forest for mushrooms? No? No mushrooms? England is strange.
I am strange. I do not know Kate Middleton, I know nothing about football, I do not catch my own fish nor pick my own mushrooms, I don't live in London. Strange!

Between  discussions of fishing trips I've been able to glimpse great rectangular areas of rich black earth, vineyards stretching out the horizon. It's like the Vale of Evesham on steriods. The Krasnodar region is rich, fertile, productive.
Then we land. Many people applaud. It's traditional on internal flights, like the sick-bags.
After the bitter cold of Moscow the air feels soft and balmy.

We drive through a golden sunset into the darkness of Cossack country, full of wines and fruits and people passionate about their land, their heritage.

                                                                                War memorial, Novorossiysk.

Terrible battles were fought here, not only over the valuable land, but over the even more valuable access from the sea. There are war memorials on so many streets. War is vivid in so many memories, such an intrinsic part of family history that it feels as if it happened a few weeks ago.

                                                                             Novorossiysk - view of the port.

In the morning I pull back the curtains and there is the Black Sea, not black at all, but green and golden, the distant horizon dotted with oil tankers.
Novorossiysk where I am now, is Russia's second largest port. There is massive development. High rise flats tower over tin and wooden houses, great glass and marble palaces spread along the coast line.
Nearly everyone also has a summer-house, a plot outside the town where they can grow fruit and vegetables, an apartment near the sea, where they can swim, a wooden cottage in the hills where the summer air is cooler than the 40 degrees common in town.
We are invited to one such summer-house, not far from town, but in a little ravine with views out to sea and cool breezes blowing in from the hills behind it.
Last summer there were severe floods in the area. This summer-house lost part of its garden as waters from the mountain rushed out to sea. Fish from the carp pool ended up on the roof. They are rebuilding and restocking. We ate fish from the new pool.

There is great pride in the produce of the area. People know where all their food originates: carp from the pond at the bottom of the garden, vegetables from the rich earth, wines from home-grown grapes, champagne from the lake-side vineyard in the hills nearby.
Our dairy food, raw milk, butter, cheeses, sour cream, the eggs and meat all came from the family farm. The goose we ate at Russian Orthodox Christmas had been plodding around there a little earlier. Mushrooms, if you want them you go into the forest and pick them, or you go to the local market where they are piled in succulent baskets full.
But don't drink the water. In a land of richness and plenty the water may be unreliable. A land of paradox.

My flight companions found me strange. I find their country mystifying, magical, somewhat alarming.It's a country on a vast scale. Tragic things happen.
 A short distance away last summer, in the town of  Kryrmsk a devastating flood swept down the valley in the night, washing away homes and people. There had been weeks of rain in the mountains, and there were rumours that a reservoir above the town had been breached or even opened to protect the dam. These rumours have been strongly denied, and there remains no clear evidence about what actually happened. One of my Russian companions believes it is possible that a tornado out at sea picked up a huge volume of water and dropped it inland.

Death and violence come from the sky, from the sea, from the mountains, just as so many of the good things in life do.
No wonder my Russian friends knock on wood, cross their fingers, believe in astrology, and respect the spirits of nature.



Leslee said...

Fascinating glimpse at a place I hardly knew existed. Such a paradox of healthy living and, well, living on the edge.

Nice to share photos with strangers. When I first went to Mexico with a friend years ago, she told me to put together a set of photographs (this was pre-smartphone) to bring because it facilitated conversation with people we'd meet.

Relatively Retiring said...

Leslee: yes, a great help for conversation, but sometimes just a bit too much!

Zhoen said...

People get such strange ideas about how people live in other places, and are loathe to let go of them.

Great beauty and great suffering, as so often, hand in hand.

Relatively Retiring said...

Zhoen: the matriarch of this lovely family asked me to tell people about how they live, and so I'm doing my best.

gz said...

thankyou for writing so well that we can visualise things as we read.

Molly said...

We think we're so advanced and yet, often times, we have no idea where our food has come from, or the enormous distances it has traveled to reach our table! Sounds like these people are way ahead of us, eating vegetables from their own land, milk from their own cows, and fish from the pond at the bottom of the garden....My husband's relatives in Ukraine are lacking in many things but have a life such as you describe here.
Thank you for your wonderful descriptions!

Relatively Retiring said...

gz: thank you for your very kind comment.

Molly: this family also has a business empire and a sophisticated life-style, but their priority is the care of the family, and provision of the best food (and wine). They manage to stay in very firm contact with their roots.

Jenny Woolf said...

Such a fascinating country. In so many ways it seems larger than life, so much more extreme in every way than niminy piminy England. I wonder if being somehow larger than life is a Russian national characteristic? what do you think?